for National Geographic News
The elusive goal of gaining a natural tan without braving the sun or the tanning booth may be within reach.
A new study suggests that many fair-skinned people retain the ability to safely produce large amounts of melanin, the pigment that colors people's skin.
Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation triggers melanin production in humans, creating tanned skin.
But too much UV light can also cause skin cancer and other ailments (related news: "Tanning 'Buzz' Could Lead to Addiction" [August 2005]).
David Fisher, a medical doctor and cancer researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, led a team that applied a plant extract called forskolin to mice's skin.
Mice that were normally fair-skinned became deeply tanned after a few weeks of daily forskolin application.
"I was blown away," Fisher said.
The tanning also protected the mice from UV radiation, and the level of protection made the tanned mice "indistinguishable from genetically black-skinned mice," Fisher said.
He and colleagues report their findings in today's issue of the journal Nature.
But, Fisher says, the team needs to do more studies to see if the extract is safe for people.
"This is experimental," Fisher said. "This is not something people should be putting on their skin."
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